After Iran admitted to falsely denying responsibility for downing a Ukrainian passenger jet this month, its domestic news coverage of the public backlash revealed a deepened divide within state media ranks.
Iran’s giant state broadcaster made no apology for disseminating the false denials and found itself under severe criticism from smaller officially licensed news websites that acknowledged being misled by Iranian officials and asked readers for forgiveness.
It was the most dramatic display of infighting and diverging editorial stances among Iranian state media outlets in years. But it also remained within the bounds of controls that Iran’s Islamist rulers have exerted over all domestic news agencies for decades.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders has called Iran one of the world’s most oppressive countries for journalists, giving it a lowly ranking of 170 out of 180 on its World Press Freedom Index.
In interviews with VOA Persian, overseas-based observers who spent years working for state media in Iran said the sharpened split in their coverage of the plane shoot-down fallout is rooted in long-standing managerial differences between Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the nation’s sole TV and radio broadcaster, and more than a dozen prominent state-approved national news websites.
Iran admitted Jan. 11 to shooting down the Ukraine International Airlines jet shortly after it took off from Tehran three days earlier, saying its forces mistook the plane for an enemy threat hours after they fired missiles at an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops. The crash of the Boeing 737 killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians and Iranian-Canadians who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada, where many had been had been studying.
In the three days following the crash, Iranian state media reported that officials blamed it on mechanical problems with the plane. They also cited government denials of Western news reports that said Western intelligence agencies had evidence of Iranian forces downing the jet.
Iranians reacted angrily upon learning they had been fed false information about the cause of the plane crash, with hundreds of protesters chanting anti-government slogans in Tehran and other cities for several days and many others expressing their displeasure on social media.
Iranian students who rallied at Tehran University Jan. 14 chanted, “Our state television is our disgrace.” A day earlier, three prominent female IRIB journalists resigned.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Gelare Jabbari said she would never return to the network after having ended her anchoring role several years ago.
“It was very hard for me to believe our people have been killed. Apologies for lying to you for 13 years,” she said.
Two other women who until recently had been anchoring for IRIB, Saba Rad and Zahra Khatami-Rad, told their Instagram followers that they also could no longer continue their work.
In a further blow to IRIB’s image, the Tehran Province Journalists Association, whose members work for various state-approved news outlets, warned that the network was destroying its credibility.
In a Jan. 13 statement, the group said, “We are holding a funeral for public trust. The first coffins include the corpses of the official media, especially [of the state broadcaster] IRIB, and then other newspapers and websites.”
VOA has been unable to interview these journalists on the record as doing so puts them at risk of prosecution by Iranian authorities who consider VOA to be a hostile entity.
IRIB seemed unfazed by the harsh criticism. It devoted little coverage to the protests and continued its staunch defense of the government and armed forces, according to the BBC Monitoring service.
The Iranian state broadcaster also spread more false information with a Jan. 16 program airing an apparent prank call to U.S. TV network C-SPAN to try to support baseless Iranian claims of hundreds of U.S. fatalities in the Jan. 8 Iranian missile strike on the Iraqi base. No one was killed in that attack.
By contrast, BBC Monitoring said mainstream Iranian news websites that normally would cast anti-government protests as seditious took a softer tone, with some apologizing to their readers for the false reporting about the plane crash and blaming authorities for misleading them.
In one example, the IRNA news agency, run by President Hassan Rouhani’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, republished the Tehran Province Journalists Association’s denouncement of IRIB in full. In another example, BBC Monitoring said the Fars News Agency, affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), published “unusually frank and detailed reports of the protests.”
WATCH: Iran Plane Crash Cover-Up Shows Widening Split in State Media
One reason that IRIB took a more dismissive stance toward the public backlash than the news websites is because it serves as the most important media platform for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appoints the network’s head and uses it to communicate his message and intolerance of dissent.
“IRIB is the first point of contact for most of the population when it comes to news and entertainment and all sorts of other programs,” said Shayan Sardarizadeh of BBC Monitoring, who spent four years working at the network in several roles. “It’s basically the way they connect to the state and what’s going on in the country.”
The state broadcaster also is the only news outlet accessible to millions of poor Iranians who do not have computers, mobile phones or internet access, especially outside major cities, said Ahmad Jalali Farahani, a Denmark-based Iranian journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Farahani, a former IRIB presenter who also had senior roles with several news websites including chief editor at Mehr News Agency, said IRIB viewers and listeners are a crucial audience for Iran’s Islamist establishment because most of them are religious and loyal to the ruling clerics.
Digitally connected Iranians
By contrast, Iran’s licensed news websites target wealthier and digitally connected Iranians who have access to rival sources of information from social media and foreign-based Persian news outlets.
Farahani said websites such as Fars seek to persuade digitally connected Iranians that their coverage of anti-government protests is more reliable.
“The protests are happening in the streets and internet users can follow them on social media. So you cannot lie to them,” he said. “Instead, you have to control or filter the news. You have to say: ‘Yes, there are some demonstrators, but not a big crowd,’ for example.”
State-approved news websites also differ from IRIB in that their managers are not directly appointed by Khamenei.
Sardarizadeh, of BBC Monitoring, said that gives the websites a freedom to react quickly to breaking news, appeal to different sections of society, and criticize or disagree with elements of Iran’s establishment. But, he said that freedom does not extend to coverage of Khamenei, whose statements and other activities are reported by all state media with language dictated by the supreme leader’s office.
Iran’s state broadcaster and licensed news websites also have not diverged in one other key aspect, said Majid Beheshti, a prominent former IRIB TV producer and filmmaker now based in Britain.
“The tone and phrasing of news websites might be different (than IRIB), but they all serve the same purpose of propping up the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy and working in favor of its leader,” he said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Mehdi Jedinia and Rikar Hussein of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed.